F. Dale Lolley's Sports Column
Defense will be offseason focus for Steelers
Steelers president Art Rooney II said this week that he was pleased with the progress the team’s offense made this season, its second under coordinator Todd Haley.
A cursory look at the numbers might suggest that Rooney is accepting mediocrity. After all, the Steelers tied for 16th in the league in scoring, averaging 23.7 points per game.
But that figure was up nearly three points from 2012, when the Steelers averaged 21.0 points per game, ranking 22nd.
More importantly, the Steelers scored 20 or more points in their final nine games this season, the first such nine-game streak since 2002. And during that stretch, the Steelers had a 6-3 record and averaged 31.75 points per game.
That’s more than enough to win on a regular basis in the NFL.
Rooney wasn’t nearly as happy with the defense, which saw its points against average jump from 19.6 last year to 23.1. He said the Steelers need to improve their run defense, which allowed 115.6 yards per game and an astounding 18 touchdowns, up from 90.6 yards and nine touchdowns in 2012.
That could give a hint as to where Pittsburgh will use its draft picks and spend its money in the offseason.
While two of the top three wide receivers – Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery – are headed to free agency, the offense should largely return intact in 2014.
But three defensive linemen, Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods, also are free agents, as is free safety Ryan Clark. All four players were either full-time or part-time starters this season.
The Steelers need to upgrade those positions to improve the defense.
And now, on to this week’s playoff games.
Three road teams won last week, including both No. 6 seeds.
Since 2005, when the sixth-seeded Steelers beat a pair of No. 1 seeds – Indianapolis and Seattle – en route to winning the Super Bowl, No. 6 seeds are 6-2 against the top seed in the postseason.
We have two of those matchups this weekend, which suggests at least one of the No. 1 seeds, Denver or Seattle, is in serious danger of losing.
The 49ers aren’t a No. 6 seed, but they are dangerous nonetheless. But the Panthers went to San Francisco Nov. 10 and came away with a 10-9 win in a defensive battle.
The 49ers were still without wide receiver Michael Crabtree at that point. Carolina’s star receiver Steve Smith is hurting.
Take San Francisco, 17-14
The Seahawks pounded the Saints, 34-7, Dec. 2 in Seattle. But that brings to mind Pittsburgh’s win at top-seeded Indianapolis in 2005.
The Steelers were trounced, 26-7, by the Colts in the regular season but learned from that loss and won the playoff rematch, 21-18.
I don’t think the Saints will win, but I expect a closer game.
Take New Orleans to cover in a 24-20 loss
Indianapolis (plus 7) at
This one appears to be the gimmee of the weekend.
The Colts had to storm back from a 38-10 second-half deficit to beat the Chiefs last weekend. It continued a troubling trend for Indianapolis, which is the only team that entered the playoffs having been outscored by its opponents.
Take New England, 27-17
San Diego (plus 10) at Denver
During their run to the playoffs, the Chargers went into Denver and beat the Broncos, 27-20, Dec. 12, using their running game to control the ball, much the way they did last week against Cincinnati.
That could work again this week. But something tells me the Broncos will pull this one out.
Take San Diego to cover in a 31-27 loss
Last week: 1-3 ATS; 3-1 Straight up
Overall: 109-132-7 ATS; 160-85-1 Straight up
F. Dale Lolley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.